City’s Investigation into Missing Ernestina Lumber Finds No Criminal Wrongdoing
NEW BEDFORD — The saga of the missing lumber meant for the restoration of the schooner Ernestina has come to a close, and it has been determined that no City employee received any money or personal gain from its disappearance.
On Friday, the City of New Bedford released a 30-page report documenting the findings of the investigation conducted by City Personnel Director Sandra Vezina, with assistance from the New Bedford Police Department.
The findings of the report are that Freetown resident Shawn Davis took the lumber, with the permission of City personnel, and that it was later sold to an East Falmouth sawmill, and a salvage company and a sawmill in Mississippi.
The 160 yellow pine planks were originally part of the Fairhaven Mills in New Bedford; in 2009, then-Mayor Scott Lang and Dickinson Development Company agreed to set aside the yellow pine for the Ernestina restoration when the mill buildings were razed for the Market Basket project. The lumber had been stored at the City Yard at Quittacas Pond in East Freetown until it disappeared sometime in 2016.
WBSM's Ken Pittman initially began investigating the missing lumber, writing about it in a November 27, 2018 piece. The City later launched its investigation on December 10.
According to the report, in 2009, then-Commissioner of the Department of Public Infrastructure Ron Labelle and employees at the City Yard were aware that the lumber was being stored at the yard for the restoration of the Ernestina. In 2011, shipwright Leon Poindexter and former Schooner Ernestina Commission Chairperson Fred Sterner visited the yard to look at the wood. Following that visit, employees at the yard were under the impression that the Ernestina was no longer interested in the wood, after former Head Treatment Plant Operator Robert Giard said he overheard a conversation between Sterner and Poindexter during the visit, in which one of the men said "the wood was garbage, no sawmill would use it because of all of the nails and steel in it," and said he heard the men say the wood would have no value to the Ernestina as a result.
The wood was removed from the garage and parking lot and stacked uncovered on the edge of a gravel roadway, where the public had walking access, sometime in 2015. The decision to move it there was made by Labelle and former Assistant Superintendent of Water Charles Kennedy, to clear up space in the garage. That move caused the wood to become visible to the public. Kennedy told investigators that led him to believe the wood was no longer being stored for Ernestina restorations.
On January 20, 2015, Kennedy asked then-Deputy Commissioner of DPI Zeb Arruda if the New Bedford Whaling Museum could take one of the beams for a museum exhibit. Arruda answered, "Please," although Michael Dyer of the Whaling Museum said he did not end up taking any of the wood because "it was rotted and loaded with nails."
The report says that on December 14, 2015, Kennedy emailed Arruda stating that "Dan Menard, the boss at Acushnet DPW, is interested in getting some of the southern yellow timbers we want to get rid of at Quittacas. He wants to use them on some structure owned by the DPW. Is it okay for him to take what he wants?" Arruda replied that Menard should contact him, but Menard told investigators he never took any of the wood.
These emails, the report suggests, "show that both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Arruda were actively responding to inquiries from individuals interested in obtaining the wood which indicates that at this time both believed the wood was no longer being used for Ernestina restorations."
Freetown resident Shawn Davis inquired to Labelle on August 3, 2015 about the lumber and some cobblestones located at Quittacas. A month later, on September 3, Labelle responded to Davis in an email that those items have "a use and purpose for a project still in the planning stages." Labelle also informed Davis that "these materials are required to go through a bidding process to comply with (Massachusetts General Law)." The report points out that the bidding process is only required for items owned by the City, and that the City did not own the lumber, nor had it received "obtained the authority from the Ernestina" to dispose of it.
Davis emailed Labelle inquiring about the wood three more times, before Labelle responded on November 19, 2015, with "Mr. Davis, again you misunderstand these materials are not available to the public." The report states, "this shows that Mr. Labelle was denying any outside requests to take the wood."
Shipright Harold Burnham then inspected the wood with Sterner on December 10, 2015, and Burnham told investigators that while he thought the bolts and nails in the wood would have to be removed and made it "risky" to work with, he said he did tell the Department of Conservation and Recreation "it was usable wood."
David Short, project manager for the Ernestina hull reconstruction, became the last representative from the Ernestina to see the wood when he visited the City Yard in April 2016.
Arruda said that sometime in 2016, Labelle tasked him with calling sawmills to try and get rid of the wood, something Labelle said he did not recollect. Arruda said he called local sawmills, but none were interested in taking the wood due to the amount of steel it contained. Arruda said he told Labelle no one wanted the wood.
Davis then flagged down Kennedy in August 2016 to inquire about the wood, who told him to contact the DPI administration office. Through a series of emails, it was determined between Kennedy and Arruda that the Ernestina no longer had interest in the wood; Kennedy sent an email to Arruda on September 15, 2016, that included an email from Davis along with a quote for how much it would cost him to remove the wood. The report says Arruda responded to Kennedy on the same day, stating "Make it happen Mr. Kennedy." Arruda explained to Vezina that it was his understanding that "the wood was no good, no one wanted it, the wood was becoming an operational hazard, it was in a fire lane in a place where kids who rode dirtbikes could get hurt and it was not a major issue on his radar with all the other work going on in the department."
From there, Kennedy scheduled the removal of the wood with Davis, and it was taken from the City Yard at the end of 2016. Davis had stated he wanted the wood to use to build himself a house.
However, on January 10, 2017, Chief Operating Officer for the City Christina Connelly asked Arruda about the wood, and he informed her "they were disposed of last year." Kennedy directed Arruda to "figure this out," and he, in turn, emailed Davis and stated the Ernestina wanted some of the wood asked if he'd be willing to release some back." Davis responded that the land deal to build his house had fallen through and that he "got rid of the wood" by sending it to the Cataumet Sawmill in East Falmouth. He did not mention any other sawmill at that time.
What was left of the wood at Cataumet Sawmill was "not suitable in quantity of condition to be used for the deck of the Ernestina." Nathan Adams, the owner of Cataumet Sawmill, told Arruda he had "sold some of the wood to a customer down south," but would not elaborate further. That roadblock kept the City from being able to continue the search for the wood any further.
On February 24, 2017, Arruda sent Kennedy and Frank Moniz to a meeting of the Ernestina Commission to explain what happened, and Kennedy reported back the people he spoke to at the meeting "did not seem happy." The Ernestina Commission informed the City they had secured the wood needed for the project, and that "if the wood that had been stored at Quittacas was being offered to them they would not accept it and would not be in a position to make a decision on what to do with it," and would leave that decision to the City.
Adams told Vezina that in 2016, Davis called to tell him there was "a bunch of timber in the woods in Freetown available for sale." Adams said it was his understanding that "a company from Louisiana came in first and took the best pieces and then they came in second and got the leftovers," according to the report. Adams had records of two checks made out to Davis, one for $2,500 and one for $3,000.
The report says that on December 18, 2018, "it became clear during the investigation that Mr. Davis was not forthcoming with his initial request in 2015, would not provide answers when asked about the name of the other sawmill and whether he received payment from them and when the land sale fell through." That led Vezina to contact New Bedford Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro, who assigned Detective Shawn Robert to assist in the investigation.
Davis told Det. Robert on December 24 that when the land deal fell through, he decided to sell the wood. He said the first company that came and took the majority of the lumber, including the higher-quality pieces, paid him $13,000. Det. Robert located and contacted the sawmill, Lees Millwork and Old Salvage Company in Winona, Mississippi, and traced the wood to Brian Austin, "who stated that the majority of the timbers are located on his property, the Oxford Farm and Ranch in Oxford, Mississippi."
Austin said he still had a majority of the wood, but that some had been sold to a contractor to use for flooring. He did say he would be willing to provide pictures of the remaining wood and sell the remaining wood back to the City at the cost he paid per foot, claiming he would send the photos and an invoice.
The report states that as of January 17, 2019, the City still has not received the requested picture and invoice, and that "a letter from the City Solicitor has been sent to Mr. Austin informing him that the wood belongs to the Schooner Ernestina-Morrissey who could seek to retrieve the wood and therefore request that he take precautions to maintain the wood in good condition."
Vezina's report concludes that "non-existent communication" and "lack of documentation" between the DPI supervisors, namely Labelle, Arruda, and Kennedy, as well as a lack of confirming that the Ernestina was no longer interested in the wood, led to the release of the wood.
"Despite that it is unclear if the Ernestina would still want or need the wood at this point; nonetheless the City did not have the right to release it," the report states. "Throughout the investigation there was no evidence to support that any City employee received any money or anything that would amount to personal gain in exchange for the timbers that Mr. Davis received."
Vezina made recommendations including that the City take inventory of any property being stored; that the City work with the City Solicitor to create policies regarding whether and how the property of others should be stored by the City; and that the City should provide departmental training on policies and procedures surrounding property storage and disposal.
Read the complete report on the City of New Bedford website.